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Students’ Role

04 May Posted by in Administration, Students | 1 comment
Students’ Role

As I wind up my service as provost, I think, obviously, about various ventures that have had incomplete success. Interest in involving students more fully in University governance is a case in point. I hasten to add that I’m not sure that we have a problem here that needs to be fixed, but there are at least some open questions.

A couple of historical notes. Americans in recent decades have on the whole better much better at devising ways to try to protect children and young adults, than at giving them any particular voice (outside the family orbit, and perhaps sometimes within). Various observers have noted that the US is fairly weak in implementing Article 12 of the 1989 Convention on Children’s Rights (which along with Somalia we have not signed anyway). We teach about democracy in our schools, but introduce virtually no elements of it. Things get a bit better in American higher education, but a lot of spillover persists. At this level there’s also an interesting contrast between the aftermath of student risings in the 1960s, in the US and Europe. In the US student demands pretty well died off after 1973, with very few structural results. Universities heaved a sigh of relief that the fuss was over. In Europe, there was more ongoing adjustment. Currently the universities involved in the Bologna consortium note that 10-20% of all slots of university governing groups are filled by students. This is surely not the case at many American institutions.

George Mason University makes a number of important gestures toward student involvement. We have a serious and responsible student government, whose members are deeply committed to Mason, but I think it’s fair to say that the group does not usually take up major issues of university governance. (My understanding is that the newly elected student government president has some interests in changing this.) Student reps sit on our Board of Visitors, but frankly they rarely say anything and are rarely asked anything, except in a closing ceremony in the final meeting of the year. It might be really interesting to have student reps as well on the main Board committees, where participatory chances would be greater (this is true at least for faculty reps). I set up a Student Advisory Committee as soon as I got here, amazed that it didn’t exist already. We meet three times a term, and have very cordial discussions; the students are very interested in learning more about what’s going on and what the plans are for the future. But we rarely discuss much outside of the student life area – housing, parking, food, etc. Again, the group is fine but it is not very demanding.

Finally, we spend a lot of time on leadership training for students, which is great, but I think we rarely suggest much of a direct connection between these programs and the way the university is run. We simply don’t think to put students on major substantive committees – outside of the student life arena – and for the most part they don’t ask for this kind of involvement. Even in the recent strategic planning exercise, while student representatives were present, there was not much active engagement.

There have been a few exceptions to this overall picture. We had serious individual student involvement in general education planning, early in the new century. My understanding is that the student rep on the recent presidential search committee was heavily and constructively involved. My student advisory group a few years back contributed really good insights about our advising process, an exception to their normal focus on consumer issues.

Again, all this may be fine. We do spend a lot of time thinking about student interests at the administrative level – we just don’t know how to ask them what they think about these interests very often.

But it would be tempting to suggest to student leaders that they help us study patterns in places, like Europe, where involvement is greater, to see if there is anything worth learning. It would be tempting to suggest that, every year, we might meet with student government to identify one or two really serious governance issues about which they’d like to learn more, to learn enough to participate actively during the balance of the year. We could expand leadership training to include, for those interested, some University focus.

As I think about it, maybe I should have paid more attention to this problem during my term as Provost. But I didn’t, so I leave as parting shot to those who might be interested going forward.